Learn: Similar to coffee, cocoa powder starts as beans―cocoa beans, from the cacao tree. After harvest, the seeds are fermented, roasted, and ground to create chocolate liquor. To make cocoa powder, the chocolate liquor is pressed to remove most of its fat, or cocoa butter, then ground again, resulting in a fine, dusky powder. Natural cocoa powder is acidic and slightly bitter, so a 19th-century Dutch scientist named Conrad van Houten found a way to neutralize the beans with alkaline chemicals, creating Dutch process cocoa powder, which has a smooth, mild chocolate flavor and a rich reddish-brown hue. Always check the label before purchasing. Dutch process cocoa may also be called “Dutched” or “alkalized,” while natural may only say “cocoa.”
Purchase: Thanks to variations in cacao trees, growing regions, and processing methods, you’ll find wide variation in flavor between brands of cocoa powder, and there are dozens to try. A good rule of thumb: If you like a particular manufacturer’s solid chocolate, you will probably like their cocoa powder as well.
Use: Cocoa powder is often used in baked goods. It also can be lightly sprinkled on top of tiramisu or other finished desserts for garnish. Cocoa powder has savory applications, too, as in modern versions of classic Mexican moles or the tablespoon that’s the “secret” ingredient in many homemade chili recipes.
Store: Keep cocoa powder in an opaque, airtight container in a cool, dark place; it will last up to two years. Place away from herbs and aromatic spices as it can easily absorb other flavors.